Age Stereotypes and Perceived Competence
Stereotypes are not simply reflected in our perceptions of what we think are representative personality traits or characteristics of older adults. We also make appraisals or attributions of older adults’ competence when we observe them perform tasks,
and we assess whether we can count on them to perform important tasks. No area is more susceptible to negative stereotyped attributions of aging than memory competence. As you may recall from Chapter 6, people of all ages believe that memory decreases with age and that we have less and less control over current and future memory functioning as we grow older (e. g., Lineweaver & Hertzog,
The interesting question is, how does this strong belief in age-related loss of memory affect our attributions (explanations) about older adults’ competencies? In an elegant series of studies, Joan Erber (Erber & Prager, 1999) found an age-based double standard in judging the competence of old versus young adults. The age-based double standard is operating when an individual attributes an older person’s failure in memory as more serious than a memory failure observed in a young adult. So, for example, if an older adult cannot find her keys, this is seen as a much more serious memory problem (e. g., possibly attributed to senility) than if a younger adult cannot find her keys. This is most evident when younger people are judging the memory failure. In contrast, when older people observe the memory failure, they tend to judge both young and old targets of the story more equally. In fact, most of the time older adults are more lenient toward memory failures in older adults. However, in other types of competence judgments, older adults also display the age-based double standard. For example, when assessing the cause of a memory failure, both younger and older people felt that the failure was due to greater mental difficulty in the case of an older adult, whereas for younger adults participants attributed it to a lack of effort or attention (Erber et al., 1990).
The preceding tasks involve global attributions of memory failures in younger and older adults. However, what happens when you are asked to decide if an older adult should get a job or perform a task that demands memory capabilities? In several studies Erber and colleagues presented younger and older participants with an audiotaped interview of people applying for various volunteer
positions, such as in a museum (Erber & Prager, 1997; Erber & Szuchman, 2002). The applicant was either old or young, and either forgetful or not forgetful. They found that despite the age – based double standard in judging older adults’ memory failures found in earlier studies, people (both young and old) had more confidence in and would assign tasks or jobs to nonforgetful people irrespective of their age.
What accounts for this apparent discrepancy in findings? Maybe, when forming an impression about someone’s capability, people take other factors into consideration. For example, traits could come into play, such as how responsible the person is. Remember that stereotypes about older adults included many positive ones, including being responsible. In fact, in another study young adults were asked whom they would choose to be a neighbor they could rely on. Despite forgetfulness ratings, they consistently chose older neighbors over younger ones (Erber et al., 1993). They also judged older neighbors to be more responsible, reliable, dependable, and helpful than younger ones. Thus, being able to access these positive traits may have compensated for older neighbors’ forgetfulness. In a more recent follow-up study, younger and older adults rated both younger and older targets similarly on negative traits such as forgetfulness; however, only the older targets were rated higher on desirable traits such as responsibility (Erber & Szuchman, 2002).
What can we conclude from the trait studies of stereotypes and the attribution studies of stereotypes? First, when more individualized information (e. g., providing an audiotaped interview of the person) is provided and the individual is considered in a social setting (e. g., a volunteer position interview, a neighborly interaction), people consider more than just negative trait-based stereotypes in making social judgments. As in the neighborly interaction, we consider additional and more positive trait information such as reliable or dependable. The volunteer position may be perceived as a context in which older adults would be effective regardless of their memory competence. In fact, research is drawing on these findings to identify what types of social
environments will most facilitate older adults’ social competence. We will examine this later.